Nillesden Green. 2004.
Jack’s space was being invaded by an annoying ringing noise. He reluctantly picked up the phone as he tapped away on the keyboard of his new iMac… swathed in cigarette smoke. ‘Very Tennessee Williams’, you might have thought if you’d been a Mac-user on Instant Messenger watching him via his iSight camera, which he’d forgotten to turn-off.
It was his land line ringing. “Hello!” Said Jack brusquely. Then, quickly realising that he probably sounded aggressive because the caller had interrupted his online word game, he jokingly added in a deliberately bad Spanish accent: ‘Magathine… Ello! Magathine.’
He continued trying to score points as he reluctantly listened to Minnie, wondering if she could hear his mouse clicking (or perhaps squeaking) as she spoke. ‘Got any scandalous pics of minor royals in their LOVELY homes, my beloved, heh heh?’ Asked Minnie, ‘So how are you chooky-egg?’ She added in a suspiciously syrupy, false manner.
Jack cradled the digital, cordless phone against his ear, irritated at having his game interrupted by someone whom he didn’t really care for, who was also sounding suspiciously cheery. In other words, she was probably about to burst into tears, as usual. He continued to run his mouse around the online page, hoping to come-up with longer words. He saw a double ‘D’ on his screen, then an ‘E’ and an ‘R’. Damm! There was an ‘ING’ as well. Was there something leading nicely into ‘ING’? Could he use the ‘DDER’ and the ‘ING’ within the time limit? Would the bitch fuck off? ‘Oddering’? Nope. He was about to score over two thousand points fergodsake! ‘Uddering’? Nope. Shit.
‘Um….’, (click, click, click), he said, ‘I’m cool thanks Minnie…’ (click, click). ‘Oh sorry, got a call-waiting, hang on a momento…’ he added, lying through his teeth, then quickly pressed the ‘recall’ button on his phone and just managed to ‘drop’ the word ’shudder’ on-screen as the seconds counted down.
YAH!’ He shouted out loud and punched the air: ‘A luffly, bick, fat, final zcore of two thoussand, eight huntred ant ninety nine!’
There weren’t many Germans in leafy-yet-multi-cultural Nillesden Green (and Jack had never got past the first page of Sadie Jones’ locally-based novel Black Lips. Pretentious, ‘I’m-determined-to-be-a-novelist’ crap, he’d thought, although the TV adaptation was quite good), but there was a German record producer who had a studio in Nillesden Lane whom he worked with occasionally, who also had a good sense of humour, contrary to popular myths about Germans. ‘Vwee arrh licking ziss inklish ironic!’ He would say, chuckling as only Germans do, ‘ but don’tz menschen ze vwar!‘.
There was a thirty-second wait before the next game. Ten seconds-in, Jack’s mobile phone bleeped. It was a text message, or ‘txt msg’, if you like. Jack quickly opened it to see that he had received a picture message. He was puzzled. His mobile (or cell phone, if one was American) was just a bog-standard, pay-as-you-go Nokia 3410: it didn’t ‘do’ picture messaging. As the seconds counted down to the next word game, he wondered who the ‘pic msg’ was from, then the game started and he swished and clicked his mouse like a maniac, having seen a potential eight-letter word or three.
Jack Black was a thirty-eight year old, mixed-race, black man who would – or should – have been a star, but wasn’t. Sadly, it was unlikely that he would ever be, as he was seen as too old in the eyes of an industry that was now controlled by desperate, record company-cum-TV-production-executives, promoting the sad, yet curiously entertaining cruelty that was the Reality TV Talent Show. Jack said ‘it was great TV, although you obviously don’t approve of it morally as they are so cynically manipulative.’
Had the record companies listened to certain internet pundits in the late nineties, they might have noticed a certain prescience regarding their industry’s potential demise, due to the onset of digital piracy on a grand scale – along with millions of teenagers ‘burning’ CDs for their mates, of course. The music industry hadn’t done its homework and they were panicking even more as 2K4 began. But that didn’t help Jack Black, the Lenny Kravitz of Nillesden Green. Maybe he’d have to diversify and write the script, the book, the album, the computer game… and the T-shirt. Not forgetting the Turner Prize-winning installation (or The Tina Turner Prize, as he preferred to call it).
Jack was very talented, in lots of creative areas, and had conversation-stopping charisma, smouldering good looks, great cheek bones and pectorals and an amazing rock n’ soul singing voice. He could paint, play guitar like Carlos Santana, write, design and had plenty of intuitive intellect – despite having not gone to university – along with that special kind of X-factor that somehow made people potentially jealous and resentful, or somewhat in awe of him. Some people tended to see him as a threat – rather than helping to nurture his many gifts – and often tried to ‘put him down’ in order, perhaps, to make their wannabe lives seem more interesting and rewarding. Others found his presence overbearing, or even an emotional challenge. Many people, of both sexes, fell hopelessly in love with him as he was beautiful, masculine, toned, tall, naturally funny and a generally groovy, black (one is tempted to make you scroll/read down at this point)
Yes, you read it right: a black man who just happened to be gay. Not some faggot stereotype or stupid queen.
So-called ‘gay culture’ left Jack cold. He was not a fan of Aussie pop stars-who’d-been-in-soaps, nor did he rate The Village People as acceptable, sartorial role models. Neither did he feel it necessary to hang-out with queens who talked only in ‘bumper-stickers’, quoting from a one-page script that had been written by perky, white, uptight, upper-class, closet-cases in the fifties. He also had a problem with gay, black ‘self-help’ groups, where the fresh, young participants were treated like sexual bush meat and instructed, sorry, encouraged, not to stray from their racial roots in their choice of sexual partners, but to ‘interact’, preferably with the ‘team leaders’ and ‘motivators’, who were somewhat competetive over who could bed their young charges first.
Jack’s mother was Spanish; a former Flamenco dancer and singer; an ageless, wild and passionate bohemian. His father, a naturally charming, laid-back Antiguan, shared a seventies, modernist, glass and steel house in the New Forest with her, and dealt in retro-modern, mid-century antiques. He was, unlike many of the older (and indeed younger), black generation, quite easy-going about Jack’s sexuality. Many of his customers were trendy, urban, loft-dwelling gays who snapped-up his Charles and Ray Eames, Le Corbusier, Verner Panton and Bauhaus pieces. Jack referred to the parental business as The Antiguan Road Show, pretend-mockingly, also knowing that he was blessed with really cool parents.
Jack Black was more commonly known as Black Jack – ‘Life is always one big, fucking gamble!’ He’d say – and was the lead singer of The Remote Control, the band he’d formed with some of the best musicians in the UK.
On drums there was the radically Islamic Moses Noses, a former pin-up from the hugely successful eighties outfit The Dub Vultures. Moses had had a somewhat scandalous – for that time – relationship with the band’s outrageously camp singer Gracie ‘Cheddar’ Gorge, who had been dubbed a ‘gender-bender’ by the tabloid rags, despite the fact that she was all-woman (allegedly). He was now married with seven kids and lived in tremendous style in two massive, twenties, modernist penthouses knocked-into-one in Whygate, stuffed with Mathew Hilton and seventies and eighties designer furniture, Picasso prints, a huge collection of priceless, retro-Korans and a fat, Filipino maid.
As it transpires, Jack just made all that up. It was all a dream (cue cheesy, American voice-over): ‘He emerged from the shower naked after thirty episodes of The Soap. He didn’t die nasty, and he re-emerged cleansed. That really celebrated the genre. That was a whole lot of soap.’
Maybe Jack would have to add ‘novelist’ or ‘script writer’ to his CV. He could, perhaps, be promoted as the male Sadie Jones (remember, the writer who put Nillesden Green on the literary map… ish?) but Jack was not the kind of acceptably coffee-coloured man who’d play the designer-joss-sticks-and-scented-candles-ethnic-garb card. He preferred to dress just as he pleased, to feel comfortable in his own skin. He was his own man. One day he would straddle cultures like a colossus. Yeah, right. Or create The Hanging Baskets Of Babylon in his own back yard. And the drummer was actually a Pakistani dyke from Stratford called Asheila Eastern.
The bass player was a big, loveable, Jamaican called Harold Handy, who had played with ‘everyone who was everyone’, from ageing pop divas to hip, underground, indie dance acts and balding rockers, in the eighties, nineties and noughties. He’d even played on a duet between Willy Robbiams and Mylene Kinogue. He was just about the best bass player in the country.
Jack had met the keyboard player Gary Henry when they’d both played at a reunion concert at The Hoxton Academy with Eaglebreath, a legendary space-rock band which they’d both been members of until they’d got disillusioned and left, having discovered that the self-proclaimed ‘boss’, Dick Rock, the guitarist and singer, had been ripping them off by putting out albums of them jamming, then hoovering-up all the royalties. That would explain the secret, Olympic-sized swimming pool concealed in a barn on his Texas Chainsaw Massacre-like, horror-hippy farm in Wales that Gary had told him about in a conspiratorial moment over a bottle of wine and a desultory dinner in what passed for a gastro-pub in North Wales.
Jack had shuddered at the memory of one of Dick’s mangey dogs biting him when he was rehearsing on the farm for the gig. He’d been staying in what he’d dubbed ‘the Heartbreak Hotel’, which was a huge, sprawling, architecturally-challenged B&B pub in the middle of nowhere, catering to travelling salesmen, middle-aged, dirty stop-outs and ageing jazz musicians who jammed for free drinks in ‘The Cabaret Barn’. Dinner consisted of various roasted joints (of meat, silly) and soggy vegetables which were kept warm under some very large lamps with large copper shades (which, ironically, would have looked cool in any self-respecting modern kitchen). ‘Chicken, Beef or Pork, only £4.95 inc veg!’ Read the chalked-up sign. ‘The Carvery’, they called it.
The decor was Jack’s worst nightmare of Barbie colours (pink and turquoise) tied-in to a Tudor-bethan ‘ambience’, with a gas, log-effect fire, fake antiques, horse-brasses (why would anyone consider such things aesthetically pleasing?) and all the atmosphere of a cheap, horror B-movie, with the added benefit of locals who looked like extras from The Stepford Wives-meets-Psycho. All this entertainment cost a bargain £16 a night, including a ‘Full English’. As opposed to a ‘Full Welsh’.
‘Fuck it!’ Muttered Jack under his breath, as the phone’s insistent ringing interrupted his word game once more. He had just been about to score one thousand points with the word ‘Shocking’, then his time was up. It was his mobile phone this time.
‘Yes!’ He said, not bothering to conceal his irritation, ‘Who’s that?’ ‘Oh, hi…’ said a slightly nervous, vaguely Northern voice, ‘did you get the picture message?’
‘Well, yeah, I saw the message, but not the picture,’ said Jack wearily, ‘I can’t open pic messages on this mobile and who the fuck are you?’
‘Shit… sorry!’ Stuttered the caller. ‘You must be a wrong number’.
‘Yes… and?’ Said Jack, strumming his fingers, wanting to return to beat lionheart, dyslexysmidnight, notcloset, mad ranter, trusty and trace-e (the game’s graphics were in trendy lower-case) and all the rest of his fellow, star players on his favourite, multi-player, online word game. He sometimes worried that he was addicted to it, yet he hadn’t even managed to score three thousand points yet and the top-five players were scoring four thousand-plus. How pathetic was that? Obviously, it was a mouse issue. He was giving it a quick clean with an anti-static, wet wipe, with his mobile phone balanced precariously under his chin. He reluctantly let another game opportunity go, then the caller suddenly asked: ‘Are you gay?’
‘Whaaaat?!’ Pregnant pause… ‘Well… yes I am as it happens.’ Replied Jack, somewhat taken aback, in his naturally masculine, deep voice. ‘What of it? You sound kind-of black? Are YOU gay? Where the fuck are you?’
‘Well, yeah, I am black, but most of my friends are white. I’m nineteen and… I think I’m gay. My name is Ricky and I’m in Leicester right now, but I’m studying in Nottingham.’
‘Leicester said about that the better!’ Quipped Jack, wondering how the hell this had come about – and why. Was it just a weird coincidence? ‘So who were you hoping to send this message to and what was the picture of?’ He asked, talking into his shoulder, watching the screen, as the next game was about to start.
‘Oh, just a friend, it was a silly picture of me flashing my bum taken in a tacky, seventies wine bar with leatherette banquettes, glitter balls and stuff in Nottingham. The place is trendy ‘cos it’s so kitsch, it’s called The Orifice… you know, student irony. Obviously, it was a wrong number, sorry.’ Said Ricky. ‘Oh… and, do you mind if I ask…?’ He hesitated.
‘Yep? ‘ said Jack, eyeing his computer screen, then added: ‘Twenty seconds to go until the next game.’
‘What game?’ Asked Ricky.
‘Oh, I’m sure you wont know it,’ said Jack, ‘it’s a an online, multi-player word game whereby you have to identify, or drop, as many big words as possible, eight letters max, from a grid of letters and… oh shit, hang on, I’ll call you right back!’ Jack pressed the red button on his mobile and quickly ‘dropped’ the words ‘remote’, then ‘control’. Just a strange coincidence, surely? Then he tried ‘closetry’ but it obviously wasn’t in the dictionary – a bit ‘noughties’; too much of a modern term to be included, he concluded. Did someone compile the letters on the game, were they just random, or had the spirits entered the equation? They’d always liked a laugh when he read the cards for his friends. The spirits, that is, or was…
Then his land line rang. He minimised the word-game window in frustration. ‘Hello!’ He stated, ‘this is Jack’s answering service, please leave me a MASSAGE, Shiatsu and ALL the extras, after the tone…’ then made a rather obviously non-digital, beeping noise.
‘Jack! Chooky-egg! I know you’re there my beloved! Pick-up the phone!’ Shrieked Minnie, sounding rather tinny, tiny and desperate from the cordless phone, discarded on the desk. To Jack it suddenly morphed into a helpless, overturned cockroach with its legs flailing.
‘Oh Okay,’ he said, sighing, reluctantly picking up the phone again after realising that he didn’t need the sound, or hassle, of a stuck-pig squealing through a cheap trannie. ‘Is that Minnie Driver? Wow! Is your middle- name Cab? By the way, fuck off! You’re a fat, evil bitch. I know your surname isn’t really Driver, it’s hah hah isn’t it? Anyway, I’m seriously fed-up with your twisted obsession with my best – gay, white, as it happens – friend and the way that you’ve used your pre-pubescent, teenage daughter to try and emotionally blackmail him. I mean – he’s gay for fuck’s sake! Why do some women persist in believing that they can ‘convert’ gay men when all the gay men were doing was just trying to be good friends with them? The sound of Minnie’s crocodile tears and gulping breaths reached epic proportions, in full Dolby Surround Sound.
‘Oh sorry,’ Jack continued, ‘someone’s breaking down my door and throwing bricks through my windows, I’ve gotta go. I think it’s your not-so-beloved’s smack-head boy-fiend trying to get in touch with his inner demons. Oh! And why did God invent Gay Disco’s ? I’ll tell you. So fat, black girls could have a good time! Must run muppet! Laters!’
He put the phone in its cradle with a sigh, went to his Smeg, stainless-steel fridge, made a large vodka and tonic, took a deep gulp, had a couple of hits on a joint, then called back Ricky, the mysterious closet-case from Nottingham.
‘Hi Ricky, it’s Jack, sorry about that, I had Rochelle-from-Pop Idol-meets-that-fat-black-bird-from-Big Brother on the phone, sobbing uncontrollably and threatening to commit suicide live online – she’s got Broadband too. So, you were saying?’
‘Well, er…’ muttered Ricky, ‘ I was wondering what it was like…’
‘Wondering what what was like?’ Asked Jack impatiently, scrolling through some new, digital pictures he’d taken of recent conquests whilst having sex with them. ‘Wondering what it was like to commit suicide live online, or what it was like to be fabulous and talented?’
‘Well, er, no…’ stuttered Ricky. ‘I was wondering what it was like to be fucked by a man’.
Oh, here we go, thought Jack, Another coincidental, transcendental, teenaged-phone-wanker.
‘Well, I don’t get screwed, haven’t been for years… no-one ever really tried anyway,’ replied Jack, ‘but in order for it to work, you’ve got to want it badly – and the guy doing it has to make you want it badly – plus you need plenty of lube. Oh, and you’ve got to have had a good crap and washed your arse, preferably with a shower. It’s all very Will And Grace, although they’d say ASS. Poppers are good too – providing they’re real’
‘OK – so what’s lube?’ Asked Ricky innocently.
‘Lube, well, it’s lubrication!’ Replied Jack – not really wanting to give a coincidental, transcendental, counselling session to a nouveau-gay at that time of the night – then added, ‘but make sure the person isn’t trying to drag (drag, hah hah!) you into being a queen, so avoid that tired, old pressure to be part of something that belongs in the fucking 1950s, man. See if you can rent a DVD of The Boys In The Band to see how truly horrendous it really was.’
Jack wondered if his least-favourite movie might have been too left-field to get released on DVD. But Video Killed The Radio Star (the only viable competitor to Clockbusters) had an extensive arty section, didn’t it? Was there one in Nottingham? Probably not.
They talked some more about the perils of being gay in provincial time-warps and their respective aspirations. Ricky was apparently at Trent University studying textiles and avidly reading books. Rite-of-passage stuff. He thought he might like to be a novelist or a journalist, or both, as well as a textile designer and maybe something in TV. He said he aspired to be a renaissance man who was into sports as well. Jack laughed a multi-media laugh, tried to picture him, then thought: who the hell employs visionaries; do you have to write a ‘how-to’ book? Anyway, in an ideal world, who’d want to be employed? At least visionaries were often artists, struggling maybe, but they were also ostensibly free to be themselves, having chosen their own, sometimes lonely, paths.
Jack and Ricky talked some more about sexuality, but Jack wasn’t lusting after the picture-message-he’d-never-seen, as he generally liked older – but in-shape – blatino men. He had a long-standing fuck-buddy called Antonio, a fifty-year old, oil millionaire from Caraccas, who’d once said sagely: ‘Hey, people are strange, but strangers are people sometimes…’
‘You know that word game you mentioned?’ Said Ricky suddenly, ‘do you have to get as many big words as possible and is it on a website that promotes new writing?’
Jack’s eyebrows raised. ‘Yeah, that’s the one, it called west of the net dot com. How bizarre that you know it, I imagine that it’s a bit obscure compared with, say, big black dicks dot com.’ Rickie chuckled. ‘Have you ever noticed,’ added Jack, warming to his theme, ‘how white people always expect black people to have huge dicks? Like it’s a cliched fantasy for them. What about black men who have a fantasy about getting screwed?’ By white men, even?
Ricky laughed, perhaps a little too readily, then rapidly changed the subject. ‘You know you said you were the singer in a band?’ He asked, ‘Yep, we’re called The Remote Control,’ replied Jack in a casual fashion, rolling another spliff, ‘and the album will be called Don’t Lose It. Unfortunately, the dot com and, even worse, the dot tv – that would have been brilliant eh? – have been registered as domain names by other people. I’m well-pissed-off. I mean what use is a dot org unless you’re a charity? I managed to get the dot co dot uk though’.
‘Cool,’ said Ricky, ‘so does the album title have Under The Sofa in brackets as well?‘ ‘Only metaphorically’. Replied Jack, laughing, thinking: ‘Boy, this boy is not stupid’.
‘I know you might not believe this – I just psyched-in – but I reckon your user name on the word game is ‘Remote’. Said Ricky.
‘Shit!’ Said Jack, ‘I don’t fucking believe it, you’ve sussed my subliminal advertising ploy! I always wondered who the people playing actually were, what they were doing, why they were playing and where they were and everything, but that means you’re on… PlopDrop, as I’ve dubbed it! What the hell is your user name? Shall I guess?’
‘Yeah, guess!’ Said Ricky, chuckling, ‘along with my star-sign. Mind you… if you turn-on ITV2 right now… have you got cable or free-view?’
‘Yep, I’ve got free-view,’ Said Jack. ‘I suspect you’re a Scorpio’.
‘Just turn-on your TV – using the remote control of course, hah hah – to check out a new programme. Nope, I’m a Taurus. You might recognise someone if you’ve got a mirror handy. Are you in?’ Ricky was suddenly speaking in a Scottish accent. Jack turned on the TV, slightly confused, yet instinctively smelling a very large, decomposing rat. Cue images of golden geese in Jack’s head as the penny dropped. ‘Okay, I confess,’ continued Ricky, ‘that’s me being filmed as I speak to you on the program live’. He waved to Jack from the TV, ‘so there’s you being secretly filmed in your own home! Jack jumped as he saw himself on TV… from his own sofa. ‘Surreal’. He thought. The camera cut back to Ricky: ‘It’s a new Reality TV show called Not Really, about people pretending to be the opposite of what they are sexually, or whatever hah hah hah! I’m really sorry for taking the piss Jack’. The TV audience stamped and whistled.
‘You bastard! Shouted Jack in a mock-angry way, in a vaguely Northern accent, whilst thinking to himself: ‘Hang-on a minute; there’s gold in them, thar hills!’ He decided it might be of some benefit to play along. ‘So, that means you must be Notcloset on Plopword, not-as-in-Notts, as it were. Well, you’re def not a closet in Notts, more the remote controller from bonnie Scotland. Congratulations on your clever ruse you… shit-face! I see that the researchers did a very thorough job’.
‘Thank you for your generosity of spirit,’ said the so-called Ricky, ‘I’m actually a massively rugged, black heterosexual called Denzel who plays Rugby for the Hebridian Tigers!’ The studio audience applauded wildly as shots of his sporting triumphs were projected onto giant screens.
‘Oh well, the Hebrides are a bit remote. So no chance of a shag then?’ Said Jack. ‘Although I much prefer Ronnie Tilkinson. Actually, that was an ironic joke, just for live TV. That should get the macho, couch-potatoes putting cushions over their laps. Do I get brownie points for spontaneity, having had the fucking piss taken out of me?’
‘Hey, people are strange,’ said Ricky/Denzel, ‘and strangers are people sometimes…’ ‘By the way,’ he continued. ‘Yeah, BTW what?’ Asked Jack, trying to work out where the secret camera was hidden. ‘Well…’ said Denzel/Ricky, as a drum roll accompanied by a cheesy, cinema organ-type fanfare was cranked-out by the ageing, drag-queen band in the TV studio, ‘The Remote Control have just won… a million-dollar recording contract with Reality Records!’ The cameras cut to the rest of Jack’s band already onstage, waving and smiling as smoke bombs exploded and strobes flashed, then they switched back to the hosts of the show, Beetle and Flex. Jack’s door bell rang. ‘Jack, you’d better get your coat quickly, you’ve scored!’ Said Beetle chirpily. ‘Yes, the limo’s waiting outside your house!’ Added Flex. They cut to Willie Robbiams, dressed as a chauffeur, ringing Jack’s doorbell. It had rung thirty seconds earlier than on the TV. Ah, the live TV security lapse, thank God, thought Jack, that he’d quickly hidden his newly-declassified, druggy bits and pieces.
‘I suspect I wont be sueing then!’ Said Jack on TV, grinning more widely than the most smiley Emoji available on Instant Messenger, ‘I’ll see you very soon, I think I might call the next album… Interactive Red Button!’ He waved in the direction of the free-view box on top of his TV (he’d finally worked-out where the secret camera was concealed), then grabbed his guitar and his mobile. Willie Robbiams was waiting outside, holding open the door of the limo for him in a theatrical fashion. The camera panned-in to him squeezing Jack’s bum, or butt, as the Americans would say.
Steve Swindells. (c) 21.1.04.